Mr. RYAN of Wisconsin. Madam Speaker, I rise today in support of extending surface transportation funding for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year before the authorization expires at the end of this week, on March 4th. I support the highway program; it is a critical part of an efficient and effective 21st century transportation infrastructure in the United States. However, I want to highlight a concern I have with an extraneous provision that is included in the language of this extension.
Section 308 of this bill attempts to extend the budget ``firewalls'' in Section 8003 of SAFETEA-LU for highway and transit categories to protect those programs from having to compete for funding against all other discretionary programs should Congress put in place overall discretionary spending caps. More specifically, Section 8003 amends Section 251(b) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 that expired on September 30, 2002--a law that is squarely within the jurisdiction of the House Budget Committee.
Section 308 of this extension has no substantive effect not only because there are no overall spending caps for FY 2011, but because Clause 3 of Rule XXI in the new House Rules for the 112th Congress eliminated the requirement to uphold such firewalls.
However, if the intention is that this provision should have a substantive effect, it is premature.
There are many tough choices ahead given the fiscal realities we face. We clearly need to set caps on spending. Funding guarantees that protect a certain category of spending prevent lawmakers from having the flexibility to balance other needs within an overall discretionary spending cap. Given the nation's trillion dollar deficits and $14 trillion in debt, Congress should be working to remove, not continue, spending floors in statute.
Furthermore, these highway and transit firewalls were originally established to protect the user-pays/user benefits principle. Unfortunately, the opposite has happened. The Highway Trust Fund is insolvent and has required $35 billion in bailouts since 2008. The Congressional Budget Office projects shortfalls of $140 billion over the next ten years.
These spending guarantees have pushed the Highway Trust Fund deeper into insolvency and have forced it to rely more and more on borrowed money. I am concerned that continuing even the appearance of firewalls for these categories in this extension suggests that spending on these programs is a higher priority than getting deficits under control. It also suggests that surface transportation should get first claim on the Treasury over other priorities for discretionary spending such as Veterans medical care or funding for our troops.
Congress may decide that ultimately highways and transit have such a high priority that we should continue to run high deficits to pay for them, but we should do that as part of the budget process and not part of a short-term highway extension that must be passed quickly or the entire program shuts down.
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